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Dissecting A Gentleman in Moscow

an image of an open book with a fountain pen balanced on top
Photo [1] by Max Pixel, CC0 [2]

If the ability to get people talking is the measure of success of a novel, then A Gentleman in Moscow was clearly a hit with the WU’s Breakout Novelist Book Dissection Group, generating more comments than any of our previous reads. Then again, given the authorial machinations hidden beneath the surface of a blithe and bubbling narrative, perhaps it isn’t all that surprising. Our crew of writerly explorers gobbled up the breadcrumbs author Amor Towles left behind, intent on understanding how the story of one man confined to a single location captivated worldwide audiences, as well as the eye of Kenneth Branagh, who plans to direct and star in a television adaptation of the tale.

“How did the author do it?” is the overriding question that drives all of our discussions. It’s not a matter of liking or not liking a book, though the task is certainly easier when one feels an affinity. In this case, the group generally found the narrative appealing, despite quibbles with early pacing and a desire for more complexity in a few secondary characters. But over the course of our exploration, the following writing strengths emerged as the pillars that sustained a novel offering a fresh perspective on the notion of blooming where you are planted:

Fair warning that *spoilers* lurk in the following samplings from our discussions on these attributes.

A Man’s Home is his Castle (and his hotel is our world)

By the end of the first chapter, readers of A Gentleman in Moscow gain a sweeping 1920s view of the Hotel Metropol, a formidable landmark steps from Red Square and the Kremlin. Along the way, they are introduced to its grand lobby, one of its premier suites, even abandoned servant quarters on the top floor. It is largely within these walls, figuratively speaking, that readers reside alongside Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov for the following three decades. And yet this setting, rather than feeling confined, comes alive in the hands of the author. As Jan O’Hara explained,

I had steeled myself for that same sense of smallness and non-movement here. But it never happened. I see that as a tribute to Towles’ ability to render each part of the hotel its own micro-setting and that the conflicts, while superficially about small things, were representative of national or even international events.”

Jeanne Gassman expanded upon the idea, pointing out the effectiveness of the author providing a relatively sheltered haven, offering glimpses of greater tragedies unfolding across Russia during that period while allowing person-to-person exchanges to take center stage. These more intimate experiences unfurl to reveal the struggle of the Count, his friends and his family to survive, and at times even thrive, under the fist of a repressive regime.

Elissa Field noted, too, that the grand hotel setting provided a sense of intrigue for the reader and, as its inner workings were revealed over the course of the story, the satisfaction of pulling back the curtain, or “seeing-inside-a-secret,” as she put it.

A Sunny Delivery for a Shadowy Tale

The narrative voice clearly transformed what could have been a depressing slog into a read that was often humorous and at times even joyous. At the start, facing a tribunal which might well have ended him, the Count displays an admirable resilience. From then on, his keen internal monologue and witty repartee with other characters revealed a thinking Moira Stelmack described as continually expansive. Towles adopted a similar banter for his omniscient narration as well, leading Jeanne to express admiration at “how he slid so smoothly from observation into the mind of the Count.”

But though the group found the author’s light tone appealing, it did lead to one nearly unanimous criticism. A period of depression during the Count’s exile, while understandable given his circumstances, felt a bit forced to many, and too easily remedied. Perhaps the arc fell flat because, as Moira noted, Towles himself has described A Gentleman in Moscow as an exploration of civility as a weapon against aggression. That intention certainly dovetails with Elissa’s observation,

The big heartedness of this book was the Count’s very intentional path to not let the change in circumstances bring him low. This is true in theme, but also in the author’s choice of the kind of book he wrote. And that strikes me as a lesson that, when writing difficult times in history, that doesn’t mean the experience has to feel thin or dreary.”

A Diamond Structure for a Gem of a Tale

Towles has more to say about his creative choices on his author website [3]. There he explains that one of his greatest challenges in crafting the tale was its peculiar geometry:

Essentially, A Gentleman in Moscow takes the shape of a diamond on its side. From the moment the Count passes through the hotel’s revolving doors, the narrative begins opening steadily outward. Over the next two hundred pages detailed descriptions accumulate of people, rooms, objects, memories, and minor events, many of which seem almost incidental.”

He goes on to explain that the challenge comes because only in the latter part of the “diamond” structure do all the story elements begin to converge toward the climax. He worried such a structure would bog readers down early in the story. This fear led him to adopt engaging language and point of view. In essence, he hoped doing so would compel readers to stick with the story despite any uncertainty regarding its early path.

This explanation very much echoed observations from the group, with some finding the start of the story sluggish even while complimenting its engaging flow, which persisted despite ever-present threats to the characters. Moreover, nearly all participants found the payoff of the story, when all the gears began to click, thoroughly satisfying.

Clearly Towles succeeded in his effort, given the breakthrough sales of the novel. But even beyond quantitative measures, the group found the story of Count Rostov and his diverse companions genuinely moving. Priya Gill captured the group consensus well in her theory of the novel,

The main internal conflict is the desire to find meaning and purpose in life. Here is a man who has been confined to a hotel, with no future or prospects. How does he find purpose? And the answer that Towles offers is that he finds purpose by helping others achieve their purpose.”

These are just a few of our take-aways in a book brimming with lessons on plot, narrative structure and character development. But what are your thoughts? If you read A Gentleman in Moscow, what aspects did you find inspiring, helpful, or even frustrating? If you haven’t read it, can you relate to these observations? Can some be incorporated into your own works in progress? Please share your thoughts below, so that we can learn together.

And if you’d like to join the group for our next dissection – a multi-book experiment – starting July 19, please join us on Facebook [4]. We would love to welcome you aboard!

About John J Kelley [5]

John J Kelley [6] crafts tales of individuals at a crossroads, exploring themes of growth, reconciliation and community. His debut novel, The Fallen Snow [7], about a young soldier’s homecoming at the close of WWI, received a Publishers Weekly starred review and earned an Honorable Mention nod at the 2012 Foreword Reviews Book-of-the-Year Awards. Born and raised in the Florida panhandle, John graduated from Virginia Tech and for a time served as a military officer. Today he lives with his partner in Washington, DC.